Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Matai’s Decision


Matai is the title given to the selected head of a family. This title enables the matai to represent the family at the village council and is required to be selected to parliament. The matai is responsible for the well being of the family and is the final decision maker in family matters. Our matai had to make one such decision.

Our matai’s only grandchild, a 10 month boy, has lived with the family since birth. His mother, the matai’s daughter, 24, lives in Apia with her “husband” and rarely visits her son. Both she and her husband seem unemployed. The paternal grandparents would raise the child until the couple is on their feet.

Two weeks ago, the matai’s sister and her 50+ American husband flew in from their home in Hawaii. She has been trying to have a child, but has been unsuccessful. They want to adopt the baby and raise him in Hawaii.

The matai’s wife and his children have not only raised the child but have completely bonded to him. The child was called KJ, in reference to the matai.

All parties want the child. The entire extended family is also affected by the outcome of his decision as to who would get the child. He made his decision and it is final.

City vs Village; Stuff vs Relationships


Being a city boy all my life, I developed certain snobbishness towards small town brethren. Now I find myself in a rural village of the third world country; I am not quite as snobbish, and in some ways resentful of my own pomposity. I see in Samoa people faced with the lure of the city or a foreign land without fully comprehending what is to be gained and what is to be lost.

There is no question the city is an economic engine. The city’s purpose for being is commerce. Its riches overflow into educational, ideological, technological innovations. The city produces stuff and status is measured by how much stuff you have. A premium is placed on change. What is lost is a sense of self identity with those around you. The bonds between people weaken in the process. The mystic of life and the forces which surround us seem to be lost in the struggle for stuff.

Village life is no idyllic panacea either. There are physical hardships and a certain static nature of thought. It is life at the subsistence level where relationships between people dominate in importance. These relationships are as necessary to life in the village as a salaried job is to a city dweller. Each day new levels of relationships subtly reveal themselves to me. Most interactions are unspoken. If you don’t look carefully, you could miss them.

I marvel at this country of Samoa which chose to maintain its independent place in the world and its least favored nation status over being a protectorate and opening its borders to foreign capitol. I see its people struggle between the world of stuff and that of relationships. I hope stuff doesn’t swallow them.

Saturday, October 27, 2007



Scabies is a skin condition caused by small mites that burrow into the skin. In the early stages, there is mild itching. As the condition persists open infected sores develop and itching intensifies greatly. As the sores are scratched, the scabies spreads over the body. It is highly contagious, especially among young children who bath irregularly.

In our household, we noticed small sores on an infant when we first moved to Iva. Over the past two months, we watched as the sores continued to spread over his body. He developed a fever and his crying in the night became worse and worse. We thought it might be scabies, but were unsure about our diagnosis and more importantly how much we should inject ourselves into family affairs.

The family took the baby repeatedly to traditional healers. The family put oils, herbs, and native ointments on the sore, but the condition just got worse. Finally we said we thought the baby should go to the hospital and we would pay for the expenses. Mary went by bus with the child and grandmother to the local public hospital where the baby was said to have scabies. Four different antibiotic medicines and baths were provided. Total cost $7.00 US. The doctor does not charge for children.

The question is why did it take so long before the child was taken to a doctor and what triggered the decision to go? Our first response was quick and simple, money. But things here are not as simple as they may seem. Certainly money is an important factor, but the family has money for other things, also one has to factor the fear or distrust of the hospital and unfamiliar medicines. We now realize the most important factor was when we said that we would take the child to the hospital. Their comfort level with us and our knowledge of a Western-style hospital overcame their anxieties. In this different world we find ourselves and the role we play in it are as frightening to us as the hospital is to them.

My First, His First Iva Haircut


One of the boys from our household brought over some electric clippers because he knew I wanted a hair cut. He never thought that I would ask him to do it. A first for both of us.



Iva, Month Two, Progress Report


Your Tax Dollars at Work

This past month we started applying for grants by visiting thirteen different governmental agencies, NGO’s, and stores for quotes in a one day period. My feet were bleeding at the end of the day. We met a lot of important people and people related to villagers in Iva. That means a lot in Samoa.

Here is where we stand on our major projects:

Village Computer/Telecenter
We hand delivered and presented a letter of request to the Ministry of Telecommunications detailing why Iva should be considered. The letter had numerous signatures of village officials to indicate the serious of the village in pursuing a center.

The project has taken on enormous importance in the village. It is as if the entire future of the village depends on getting this communications center. Hopefully, we get some feedback some.

Sewing Machines
The Women’s Committee decided on fewer but better quality sewing machines. We got their input on filling out the proposal form which required considerable thought about what would be done after we got the machines. This proposal is being hand delivered to the New Zealand High Commission this coming week.

Village Youth
Much to our amazement, the village mayor said he was calling a meeting of all the village youth the first week of November. We can decide on the day and what to do. We have no idea what we are doing.

Using Local High School Computer Lab
Negotiations with the school principle on having us teach some computer for teachers and students, and to also provide lessons to villagers is awaiting his meeting with the School Committee (Board of Ed). National testing is going on now, which further delays us getting an answer. We think he will agree because it is a way for the school to make some money.

Relocating/Rebuilding Village Primary School
We were asked to table this project since grants for this type of project seem to be on hold. No Money.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Churches of Iva: Roman Catholic


About 25% of Samoans are Roman Catholics who were among the first group of missionaries to convert Samoans to Christianity. The host family with whom we are with are devout Catholics. The church is across the road from us.

Every day starts with the ringing of the bell (gas cylinder hit with a hammer) at 5:00 am for Rosary. Like other churches there are two services on Sunday; one in the morning and one at 4:00 pm. There may be other services during the week as well. This combined with numerous other events during the week occupy a full schedule for parishioners.

Mass is festooned with fragrant leis which are ceremonially brought forward and placed around the necks of the priest, other church leaders, guests, symbolic icons, alter, pulpit, etc. A traveling priest conducts Mass and is shared by several other churches on the island. When an ordained priest is unavailable, services are conducted by local “pastors’.

Confession is held twice a year, before Christmas and Easter. It is done as a group. Communion and baptisms are done whenever a priest conducts Mass.

Catholics seem to be the most liberal of the churches. They do allow drinking of beer and Ava after the service. They don’t proselytize and don’t read who gave what size offering.

Trying to understand any faith as an outsider is a superficial and often wrong exercise. But like Catholic churches in other parts of the world, the faith somehow blends local customs into the religion.

An interesting footnote is that our host father’s father played piano in a Protestant church when Catholics did not permit musical instruments. He tried to dissuade his son from following in his footsteps which he of course ignored. He now does not want his son to play, but I hear the sounds of a guitar late at night.

Catholic Church in Iva


The Cow’s Tongue


Some people were fined a cow today for drunkenness and not showing up to work on the road. In Samoan fashion, a cow was butchered for the fine and divided among the villagers. No one wanted the head which was being carted away to the sea to be gleaned by the crabs so as to make a nice cow head ornament.

I asked about the tongue. It is the best part of the cow. I was looked at with disgust. I said you eat pig’s tongue; why not cow’s?

We retrieved the cows head from the sea and proceeded to crudely cut out the tongue. Bringing it back to cook, I let hang near my mouth scaring most of the village kids, some running away in tears.

I tried to describe that you cook it just like Samoan chicken, by stewing it for a long time. Well, I got a pot and cooked it over the wood fire. When done, I offered samples. Those who didn’t know what it was really liked it; those who did carefully chewed their morsel. The remaining tongue was fried in grease along with the liver which fit more into the Samoan cuisine of fat and lard.

It was fun to have our Samoan family try a food they had never had before. Maybe they might have a better understanding of what it means to eat Moray eel and seaweed.

Sorry, no pictures for you tongue lovers to savor.

Groups 1,2, & 79 Fia Fia


It is a Peace Corps tradition to welcome the new incoming group of trainees with a Samoan style party, called a Fia Fia. This Fia Fia was extra special because not only were Peace Corps Alumni from the first two groups of Samoan Peace Corps Volunteers in attendance, but it also was the 40th anniversary of the Peace Corps in Samoa. Also joining in the festivities was Samoa’s Head of State, the Charge d’Affairs from the United States Consul, and numerous Peace Corps officials, relatives, and passing Samoans who just wanted to join the party.

The food was prepared and supplied by current volunteers who also provided the entertainment for the event. After the event the volunteers also had the honor of cleanup.

Preparing for the Ava Ceremony

Men's Slap Dance
(Note second dancer from left)

Feast Preperation

What's a Feast Without a Pig?

White Sunday


The biggest holiday in Samoa is White Sunday or Children’s Sunday. It is held on the second Sunday of October. The Monday following White Sunday is a national holiday. The best way to describe it is that it is Thanksgiving and Christmas all roll into one day with everyone dressed in new white clothes.

During White Sunday relatives come for from all over the islands to join together. The parents serve the children. The children perform numerous songs and plays in church in a reversal of roles. The children also receive gifts. The stores do a bonanza business. The traffic is heavy and the ferries run extra runs to accommodate the rush of passengers.

White Sunday was started by the early missionaries of the London Missionary Society in the mid 19th century. In a country where almost half the people are children it was a huge success. Soon the other churches conformed, not to pass up a good thing.

Unfortunately, Mary and I spent our White Sunday in an Apia Hospital. This was a big disappointment to the over eighty people who had come to our host family’s compound to feast and feast, then feast again. We just have to wait till next year to get our white outfits.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Struggling with Language


Languages have always fascinated me. I have never really been good at them, but like Sisyphus futilely pushing the round rock up the hill only to have it roll back again, I try to learn language after language. In high school, it was French and Latin. At the university, I managed to pass scientific competencies in French and Russian. In our travels, I dabbled in speaking Spanish, German, Dutch, Botswanan, Turkish, Italian, Russian, and French. Language books and tapes filled my book shelf. Now I am faced withy my biggest language challenge.

It is possible to be successful in the Samoan Peace Corps without knowing anything, but the basic phrases of Hello, Goodbye, Please, and Thank You. Many Samoans speak fluent English. English is the language of Apia and high school students have all their lessons in English throughout the country. If you live in a rural village, like Iva, the level of English drops off quickly. You are faced with the fact that you are not going to communicate effectively with the locals until your Samoan greatly improves.

Peace Corps language training is considered the best in the world. Essentially in eight weeks they bring you to a level of survival proficiency before they release you into the wild. This allows you to live at the lowest level on Maslow’s pyramid of needs. For many Peace Corps, they leave training at a much higher proficiency level and are able to carry on a lengthy conversation. I salute and envy them.

There are three types of Samoan spoken: Oratory, “T”, and “K”. Oratory is a very formalized spoken at Matai councils. Most Samoans don’t understand it. “T” is the type we are taught and is the language usually spoken in church and the language of print. “T” is what the early English Missionaries developed as they tried to transform an oral, unwritten language into a written one. This made it possible to translate the Bible and easier for them to speak. “T” represents how educated, middle class Samoans speak. “K” is the everyday spoken language and closest to the unwritten Samoan. “K” is the Cockney of Samoa and is the way to speak in the village.

Here is how a conversation for me goes in Iva where everyone speaks “K”. After the initial greetings which I understand, I try to catch a few familiar sounding words in “K” (where the “K” sound is substituted for the “T” sound in “T”). I convert the “K” word to a “T” sounding word. I translate the “T” word into English. From that one word or short phrase, I try to imagine the full context of the conversation. I then try the reverse response, thinking of an English word which I know in “T” and converting it to “K”. By that time, the speaker has already gone on to another subject. Rather than looking like an ass, I usually do the time tested response which is to smile and nod in agreement, like I understand what is said. The Samoan is amazed that even though I can hardly speak Samoan, I fully comprehend what he is saying. Of course, the reverse also happens when I speak in English.

The fun really starts when you are trying to do your Peace Corps job of developing the village by turning the village’s wants and needs into proposals actual results (More about projects later). One shouldn’t despair over the conflicts between nations, but should be thankful we are still able to walk on this earth. A lot gets Lost in Translation.

I give the mayor of my village, on whose compound we live, tremendous accolades. His English and my Samoan are on a par. We both struggle to convey our thoughts about the future of the village as he navigates the tricky waters of change and village politics while I navigate the waters of NGO’s , governmental agencies, and Western concepts. He has given me a list of the 10 different ways Samoans commonly say, “Where are you going?” He has taken one of our Samoan-English dictionaries in a futile effort to teach me more Samoan, but also to understand my English written proposals for which he wants the other village leaders to sign-off. It is a serious Tango we dance.

Mary has Recovered


Mary has been released by thePeace Corps from the hotel where she has been staying. She still has to take some anitbiotics, but is returning to our village of Iva tomorrow. Now it is to continue her Peace Corps projects where the Women's Committee is waiting to meet with her.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Mary Hospitalized


Being ill is no fun wherever you are, but being in a very different place just adds to our Peace Corps adventure.

For about a week, Mary wasn’t feeling well. Sore neck, swollen neck glands, loss of appetite, hot, that tired achy feeling; all somewhat less than noteworthy. However when her temperature reached 103, we went to the local doctor in Savaii who said it was probably a viral infection and would clear itself. Nothing again noteworthy here, except his office did not have an aquarium or magazines to read.

The next morning, October 10, we noticed a large rash on her leg. The temp again very high. We went to the doctor again who diagnosed cellulitus. Mary could hardly move. The Peace Corps Medical Officer said she had to come immediately to Apia, an arduous ferry ride and 45 car ride away. Thankfully, the Peace Corps had a car and driver waiting for us at the ferry wharf. She was quickly admitted to a private hospital where meals are catered.

From the next four days, she received heavy doses of antibiotics and IV’s to combat her dehydration. She was released from the hospital on October 14, and is now at a hotel next door to the Peace Corps office. She is expected to be released this Friday October 19.

It seems that Mary had a blood infection of both staphylococcus and streptococcus bacteria. This type of infection often comes about from a small cut or bite on the skin. One can think of the tropics as a giant Petri dish in which all kinds of bacteria easily grow on your skin.

We are really happy for Peace Corps insurance and medical staff who acted quickly and professionally upon learning she wasn’t feeling well, the local doctor on Savaii who treats Peace Corps, and the mayor of our village made a one day long trip just to see Mary.

Mary being Admitted
A Room with a View

For a more in depth perspective on medical practices, you may want to refer to my blog entry of September 1, 2007 , "Healing".

Meeting the New Group 79


I had the pleasure of spending time with the new Peace Corps arrivals of Group 79. I felt like a sophomore examining the new freshman class. They look so young, so naïve, so full of questions about what lies ahead.

Of course, the reality is the average age is greater than our group; they know their assignments; what they will teach; and where they may be placed. At least, I am Peace Corps Volunteer from Group 78 and they are just Peace Corps Trainees.

Bad Photo of a Good Group (79) in Class

Smitten (Bitten) Again


Back in September, I was painfully bitten while asleep on the top of the head by an unknown critter. Last night, I was awakened again with a similar pain shooting through my arm. Was it a bad dream? No, how could it be a dream with blood dripping from by elbow and the two little fang marks. Now I know what being bitten by a Samoan centipede is like.

At least I haven’t been bitten on the testicles as one Peace Corps Volunteer. I hate to think how that felt!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Churches of Iva (Overview)


One can not understand Samoa without understanding the depth religion plays in the society and culture. Christianity pervades every aspect of life here from the schools, courts, business, law, government, etc. It is a “Way of Life”, not unlike Islam or Christianity during the middle ages. Each day I discover a new aspect of how the church influences every Samoan, whether they actually attend church or not. It is almost impossible for a Samoan to envision another person who is not a Christian, just as is it almost impossible for an American to understand a theocratic Christian country.

What a society builds often reflects what they deem important. Americans build ballparks, corporate skyscrapers, freeways, and large houses. Samoans build churches. Churches are by far the most dominate structure in any village. They continue to be built, each bigger than the last, in the continuing contest of devotion. Samoans spend over twice as much on religion as they do on education. They donate even more in the form of animals and goods for fund raisers.

There are seven churches in Iva. Mary and I have attended each one to see what role they play in the community. It is part of our job as Peace Corps to understand how to get things done in this South Pacific world.

Rather than bore you with one long blog entry on all the churches, I shall make separate entries in the coming weeks under the “First 90 Days of Iva-Churches” label.

Preparing for Group 79


There is an excitement among us volunteers. At 5:00 am on Tuesday, October 9th, the newest group of Peace Corps arrives. They are affectionately called Group 79 by the Peace Corps. This is a group know as “Capacity Builders”. They usually work in a school and live on or close to the school they are assigned. (Our Group 78 primary lives in a rural village and tries to help in the development of that village. We are “Village Based Development” workers.) It is a time for us to relive our own arrival with its expectations and note how we are now.

Trapping Cockroaches


I set my mouse trap out as usual, only to hear it snap shut a few minutes later. A cockroach meets his maker.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Teacher's Day in Samoa


This morning we awoke to excited children carrying signs. Was it a demonstration, a protest against something? No it was Samoan Teacher's Day where the children parade down the street with signs of appreciation for their teachers.

There was never a flag pole at Iva Elementary School, built over 20 years ago. Yesterday the pole was finished. Today an historic faded flag was slowly raised for the first time by the school principal, Menime Namulauulu Filipo, as the children emotionally sang the Samoan National Song. The old flag was given years ago by the previous village mayor, Tafa Sa, to the current mayor, Tofilau Kapeli, to be presented to the school when the flag pole was built. The flag waves as a tribute to both the teachers and the country of Samoa.

Children Marching Through Iva

Raising of Flag for First Time In School History

A Peace Corps Tragedy


I don’t think anything is more tragic for the Peace Corps institution or for we volunteers than when other volunteers are terminated early and sent home for irresponsible behavior. This year, six Samoan volunteers have been sent home early because of what the Peace Corps labels as “Frat Boy” behavior, none from our Group 78.

The tragedy is that these experienced volunteers are in the middle of their projects and at the peak of their productivity. The people in their village become irate because their projects are not finished, damaging the reputations of Peace Corps alumni, those currently here, and those yet to come.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

A Day with Sophia (Safiya)


Sophia is a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer from our “Gang of Six” (Group 78). She lives in the Village of Mauga on our island of Savaii. Mauga is the smallest village of uor group with a population of about 80 people. Sophia, born in Jamacia, is from New York City. The village is very picturesque with traditional open fales situation around the rim of an extinct volcano. The mountains are is the village backdrop during the day and the Milky Way its ceiling at night.

Sophia has an enclosed room built for her as part of the Women’s Committee House. Women sleep outside her room every night to make sure she is safe. She is amazed by the unity of her village, expressed in the village’s efforts to manually resurrect an old well in the middle of the crater. (They just hit some water; the first drops being ceremonially given to the oldest person in the village).

Pre-school and homework centers are two of her projects. She has started both, as well as, three fund-raising events for supplies. She has even bigger plans for a playground, a library, and sewing machines. Sophia loves her village and from what we can see, the village loves her.
Sophia in Front of Her House

Sophia and Mary at Village Well

A Day with Jacob (Iakopo)


Jacob is a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer from our “Gang of Six” (Group 78). He lives in the Village of Gataivai on the south shore of Savaii. Gataivai is a large village strung out along the road much like our village. The village’s solitary Methodist church dominates the village. Pre-school, youth center, computer center, and other community buildings are located across the road from Jacob’s house and the church. Jacob has a room in a house of a large family next to the church.

Jacob’s projects are centered on the villager’s health, their community garden, and resurrecting an unused computer center. He has started an exercise and karate program for the youth, got more medical supplies for the health center, and has started computer classes for three village students. He partakes in the Village Council meeting with the Matais.

Jacob currently lives in Colorado where his father is a defensive line coach for the Denver Broncos. Jacob played football for Bucknell and has lost a lot of weight since coming to Samoa. He plans to eat his way back to his former size.

Jacob in Front of Telecenter Sign